On November 6, 2019, under very questionable circumstances, the Government of Quebec placed the English Montreal School Board under partial trusteeship for a period of six months. At the time, the EMSB was a vocal opponent of the government’s Bill 21 and Bill 40, both of which are being legally challenged. The school board also launched a challenge over the government’s seizure of two EMSB schools in St. Leonard for use in the French school board. Many suggested at the time that trusteeship was in fact a legal means to silence the EMSB.
Marlene Jennings was appointed as administrator of the EMSB for the duration of this period. She assumed all the functions and powers of the EMSB’s Council of Commissioners, apart from its power to institute and manage legal proceedings. Ms. Jennings was also tasked with presenting a plan to restructure the EMSB’s administration. The firm of Deloitte was hired to advise her in carrying out this mandate.
Trusteeship is a tool of last resort, used by the government to seize control of another organization, when that body cannot effectively function and carry out its mission. This was never the case with the EMSB.
The day-to-day operations of our elementary schools, our high schools and our adult centres were functioning extremely well. Allocations of budgets to the schools, approval of a multitude of programs and initiatives, school maintenance and physical improvements were all occurring in a timely and responsible fashion. Over ninety percent of the resolutions discussed at Council meetings by the commissioners were passed unanimously.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that reaching consensus among 15 commissioners is a difficult task under any circumstances. It is true that public meetings of the Council were often spirited, even animated at times. Occasionally the debates and discussions went on for lengthy periods. The results of these heated debates were twofold: first, an increase in public awareness and interest, and second, an increase in media coverage, both of which are desirable. Debate which results in good long-term decision-making, as well as heightened public interest in the governance of our school board, is important and fundamental to democracy, even if it is messy at times.
The English Montreal School Board’s student success rate of 92.4% is the highest among the 69 English and French school boards in the entire province of Quebec. Perhaps the government should have appointed a committee to study and copy the EMSB’s best practices to obtain such outstanding results.
There have been many references to dysfunction at the EMSB. Unfortunately, the leadership crisis/impasse at EMSB was a contributing factor to this dysfunction. The majority of commissioners recognized that they had to act in order to put into place some of the elements necessary to address this problem. To that end, at the September 26, 2018 meeting of the EMSB Council of Commissioners, the vice chair was voted out of office by 10 of the 15 commissioners.
Subsequently, at the February 19, 2019 Council meeting, by a two-thirds majority, the commissioners expressed their lack of confidence in the chair of the EMSB and called on her to resign from her position. The Education Act unfortunately prevented the Council from voting the Chair out of office and replacing her.
There is no doubt that had the chair resigned her position, trusteeship would never have occurred. The six-month trusteeship period has now ended, but the Government has unilaterally extended it for another six months until November 6. This move is unnecessarily heavy-handed as it unilaterally penalizes the majority of duly elected commissioners and their constituents.
The EMSB Council of Commissioners has been effectively muzzled forever. Its mandate ends on November 1, when school board elections are scheduled to take place under Bill 40. This is another blow for democracy in Quebec.
The report mandated by the government six months ago has not been made available to commissioners, so no improvements regarding the functioning of the EMSB can be made. No justifiable reason has been given by the government regarding this additional six months of trusteeship. Oversight by elected representatives especially during these terrible times is very important and should not be stifled.
School commissioners have strong ties to their communities and are often contacted by parents seeking information on various topics. They could be of assistance during this Covid-19 crisis. Rather than include them in “all-hands-on-deck” to help out, the government has decided to exclude them and deprive communities of an important element of support.
Joseph Lalla is the English Montreal School Board school commissioner for NDG and Montreal West and a retired school principal.